Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Out Of The Ashes : Ashes of Creation

Only a few hours after I read Syp's piece on the Ashes of Creation "Node" system and the upcoming Kickstarter campaign the official promo popped up in my inbox. According to the email, AoC (isn't someone using that already?) has registered 75,000 accounts since the game announced its existence only four months ago.

One of those accounts is mine. I signed up a few weeks ago but until now I'd heard absolutely nothing. Yesterday's email is working hard to fill that silence. It includes three blog posts, three videos and a bushel of links to the game's Discord server, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube feeds plus more besides.

I could hyperlink all of those but since they're all on the very professional, AAA-standard website, I might as well just link that instead. It does seem odd to me that it's only now, as they ramp up for the final week before the Kickstarter opens on 1st May, that I'm getting my first email. Square Enix, as a comparison, send me an email approximately every other day (none of which I read, but that's by the by).

It's just as well they've woken up because although Ashes is supposed to be on my watch-list I'd actually forgotten it even existed until I saw Syp's post. With the prospect of having to open my wallet in mind I took the trouble yesterday to read those blog posts and watch some of the videos and I have to concur with Syp that public understanding of and interest in the proposed nodal structure of the game may underpin the Kickstarter's success or failure.

The problem with any pitch like this, which rests on a single high-concept strapline, is that everything has to be presented as a finished product with a gleaming, seamless, sheen, when really there's not much more behind the curtain than a working draft and a prototype - if you're lucky. Added to that, we all know that MMOs take forever to build and change a thousand times along the way. The game you get is very, very rarely the game you were offered.

Syp, who knows his way around an MMO better than most, was clearly having some trouble parsing AoC. So am I. In part it seems to be a Western analog of games like Black Desert Online or ArcheAge but with a bit more of a theme-park veneer than most Eastern imports.

I struggled to find anything that suggested the housing would be in any way similar to WildStar, Rift or EQ2, where the focus is primarily on decorating a home to live in. All the emphasis appears to be on the productivity and income you can squeeze out of owning property: "Homeowners in our game will have the ability to develop their plot of land as they see fit. Focus on farming, animal husbandry, or own your very own smithy. You’ll be able to specialize your land to maximize your profits or your comfort – be sure to choose wisely."

When they talk about "comfort" I suspect what they mean is "convenience" but I guess we can hope. If there is a plan to attract the hobby decorators, though, it's going to need some kind of get out clause for the game's main USP - eternal change. The core Node system relies entirely on mutability: "Cities will rise and fall, their populations based on the history of the world as the players create it...As the world’s NPC structure is established in real time, players will have the ability to destroy what they’ve created, paving the way for new development, new populations, and real change...Gone are the days of static worlds, change is here to stay".

Yes. Well. Really? That's all very exciting until you come home from work one day, log in and find the home you spent the last six months working on is a smoking shell because someone in another time-zone fancied doing a bit of sieging. The PR makes much of the epochal nature of an attack on a Metropolis but a close reading of the text suggests the huge majority of homes will be in villages or towns, which presumably can also be attacked and destroyed - more easily and more often.

This video covers housing from around twelve minutes in. I'm really no clearer on how it works after watching it.

The same caveat can be applied to all the underlying structures of the game. At this stage it's unclear exactly how a lot of things are going to work, especially over the longer term. For example, each server is intended to develop differently based on player activity, leading to significantly different virtual spaces. 

Let's hope they don't need to merge servers then. That could be awkward. But equally, how would all the various modern alternatives to handling population decline work? Hard to have megaservers or clusters when every server is functionally different from every other.

And as always we have to wonder, do MMO players really want change? They almost always say they do and yet, so frequently, when they get it they don't like it. It's my belief that MMO players, by and large, like only two kinds of change: something superficial and short-lived that creates a brief buzz of excitement or something permanent that directly benefits their personal playstyle.

It looks in some ways as if Ashes of Creation might be aiming for the long-mooted "Fantasy EVE" slot. "Political strife and intrigue will play a very real role in the structure of your world" claims the website. There was a period when this was a coveted position on the MMO wheel: Shadowbane and Darkfall probably came closest to filling it but I doubt either would be a model to which any mainstream-oriented developer would aspire.

That's most likely why AoC is looking to cover all the bases a true fantasy EVE might ignore: "Questing in our world combines the best elements of traditional MMO’s as well as the introduction of our unique player driven experiences. Ashes of Creation offers area quests, public quests, and quest chains that change dynamically and in real time based on the player’s experiences and choices." We call this "having your cake and eating it".

I could go on but there's really little point in over-analyzing public information on any MMO at such a ridiculously early stage of development. Or there wouldn't be if it wasn't that they're about to ask for our money. Up front. Sight unseen.

As Kickstarter and the crowdfunding concept ages there's a consensus building over the kind of projects that do and don't fit the mold. Exploding Kittens are good; Star Citizen..well, the jury's still out on that one. Ashes of Creation does seem to sit towards the more ambitious end of the crowdfunding spectrum.

It's the only MMO in development I can think of that's pitched squarely at the existing, broad genre audience. It doesn't have the self-identifying niche feel of something like Project: Gorgon or Camelot Unchained. It isn't a disguised survival sandbox like New World or a lobby-based arena game like Crowfall.

What it is is a pitch for an MMO that would have looked about par for the course four or five years ago. You could put AoC alongside GW2, TSW or WildStar at the equivalent point in their promotional cycle and it wouldn't look at all out of place.

Only none of those were crowdfunded. They all had established developers and/or producers with cash to spend. Given all that, would I back it?

Yes. I would and I'm going to. Always assuming the tiers are reasonable and there's a good buy-in for $50 or less. When it comes to prospects for a new MMO that could - just possibly - become the Next Big Thing chez Bhagpuss, there's a field of two: this and Pantheon and of the two, based on what we know right now, I'd rather play Ashes.

For all the gaping holes in its design it looks like both something a little different and something potentially interesting. Pantheon may be a great retro-fix of nostalgic fun if it ever arrives but Ashes of Creation could - and I stress could - be something new.

It's worth a punt. Especially if there's a buy-in Alpha. And no NDA.

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